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NAHA, Okinawa — Howard Baker, U.S. ambassador to Japan, has vowed to continue consolidating military bases on Okinawa — but Okinawa officials said Tuesday they’re concerned Baker also reaffirmed U.S. opposition to changing the U.S.-Japanese status of forces agreement.

The SOFA governs relations between Japan and the U.S. military. Okinawa has been demanding that it be changed to grant Japan immediate jurisdiction of all U.S. servicemembers charged with crimes under Japanese law.

Under the current SOFA, unless Japanese police make an arrest outside a U.S. base, the U.S. military retains custody until a Japanese court indicts a suspect. The two nations have agreed informally that persons accused of rape and murder will be turned over sooner.

Baker, speaking Friday to the Okinawa federation of Economic Organizations and American Chamber of Commerce of Okinawa, stressed the importance of the U.S.-Japanese partnership but said: “I do not want to minimize the security dimension of that relationship. … Global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a few dictators pose new challenges.

“And while these challenges have underscored the important role played by Okinawa in keeping the peace of this region, we also know that Okinawa has never asked to assume this role,” Baker said. “America understands that the U.S. military presence on Okinawa, although vital for maintaining regional stability, also imposes a burden on Okinawa and its citizens.”

He said he was “committed as ever to easing that burden” by continuing to return to Okinawa 21 percent of land the bases now occupy, as outlined in a 1996 pact.

Hirotaka Naikama, Okinawa Federation of Economic Organizations chairman, later pressed Baker on the SOFA issue.

“The SOFA is an agreement that was carefully arrived at, painstakingly drafted and has been successful in its implementation for several years,” Baker replied. “Which is not to say that it is always perfect. America has made it clear that while we do not favor amending the SOFA, we are certainly open to suggestions on how to improve the application — on how to improve the execution of the SOFA.

“I think that’s a realistic view,” he said. “I believe that’s what contributes most to the friendship and stability of the relationship between Okinawa and the United States and I will commit myself to that.”

Okinawa officials said Baker said something similar to Gov. Keiichi Inamine, who also was at the meeting.

“The governor stressed to him that various U.S. military-related problems can no longer be solved by merely making operational improvements to the SOFA,” said Choki Kuba, U.S. Military Affairs Office director for Okinawa’s prefectural government. “The governor assured the ambassador that he had solid grounds for calling for changes.”

Okinawa also wants changes to cover environmental issues and ensure speedy and accurate compensation to victims of accidents and crimes committed by persons in Japan under the SOFA, Kuba said, and to cover child support issues involving Amerasian children.

“The governor told the ambassador he would give him more detailed information and data through the U.S. Consulate on Okinawa,” he said.

It appeared to Inamine that the Japanese government had not fully conveyed Okinawa’s concerns to U.S. officials, Kuba said.

“And that’s no wonder,” he said. “The Japanese government does not want to change the agreement, maintaining its stance that operational improvements would suffice.

“Once again, we realize that our first challenge is to break through the thick wall between us and Tokyo government,” he said.

Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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